Born in Czechoslovakia in 1930 to a Czech mother and Polish father, Maxwell Smart immigrated to Poland as an infant. There, his family joined the 5,000 other Jews of Buczacz (population 20,000) who prospered in commerce and in the manufacture of clothing and hats. Art classes were the delight of his early years at school, cut cruelly short when the Russians and Germans jousted for control of the city during the Second World War. The Germans eventually held sway and evacuated everyone from the war zone except the Jews. Those unfortunates were loaded onto trucks and transported either to the death camps or to the forest outside town where they were systematically slaughtered and dumped in mass graves.
Maxwell saw his father taken away to be shot; he saved himself from the camp transport that swallowed his mother and sister and survived the war on the property of a sympathetic farmer who defied hostile neighbours. The sharp needles of the fir tree boughs that he used to cover his dugout hole during SS sweeps, live on in the imagery of his paintings. So do the emotions he experienced as an 11-year-old boy, looking skyward from his hiding place and imagining the endless freedom of the cosmos that lay beyond the bounds of earth.
In 1948, at age 17, Maxwell arrived in Halifax, Canada aboard the S.S. General Sturgess, was taken by train to Montreal and sheltered by the Canadian Jewish Congress as a war orphan. By the age of 19, he was already supporting himself and had married. The art that emotionally sustained him through his many years as a successful businessman came to the fore when, buying up real estate, he was able to designate a space as his studio. “I constantly paint and have been painting in my studio for the past 20 years. Painting is an escape for me. I’m in a different place, disconnected from reality because I don’t paint realism,” he says, “I paint the universe, free spaces where you can just wander.”
Freedom and escape are ongoing themes in his explosions of colour that have their roots in North American and European abstract expressionism. After flirting with figurative painting in the early 1960s (The Goddess Justitia), Maxwell spent the1970s immersed in the Tachism of Paul-Émile Borduas (1905-1960) and in the Automatism of Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002) whose works he absorbed at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal. Taking his cue from the desire to communicate pure emotion, Maxwell began to apply his paint with powerful directional strokes, using a palette knife.
Seasons like Spring (Spring) and Fall (Composition in Red) exude the colours andsensations of earth, foliage and even air temperature, At times, he’ll drizzle paint in circular paths from the point of his palette knife (Machinery), like gesture painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). Power and Victory, one of his large-scale canvases, bristles with the sense of marching guns, stained with the blood of battle. Yet at the same time, the composition morphs into a forest of sentinel trees that bear witness to man’s inhumanity to man. Of course, points out Maxwell, the viewer “can imagine anything”.
By 2003, Maxwell was venturing to the borders of more recognizable form with his portrayal of planets. He couches them in abstract, short paint strokes and areas of colour that suggest clouds, cosmic creation and solar fire. The artist takes his cue for the orbs from his idol Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) whose geometric circles and angles revolutionized painting with the Blaue Reiter of Berlin. Maxwell, however, further links his globes with the physical world by giving them a solid three-dimensionality.
“Kandinsky’s paintings were light. Mine are heavier, more dramatic. My idea of beginnings (a Creation theme that recurs) are explosive. He is more serene. Yet he was rebellious. He didn’t want to conform. He wanted to be free and this is my ideal,” says Maxwell. This urge for freedom is even evident in the way Maxwell discarded the table under a vase of flowers in the 1994 canvas Joie de Vivre No. 3 in which only a shaded area suggests a supporting surface. Stylized flowers painted over the past three years are characterized by impasto petals, some in paint wound like yarn (Daisies in a Vase). They sit in pots woven with a thick wicker of multicoloured paint. At this point, Maxwell’s subject becomes symbolic. These are not floral portraits but are about life and survival, heads too large for their wisp-like stems that, nevertheless, stand unbowed.
“I am a Holocaust survivor. I survived the cold weathers. I survived when there was no food and I had to steal a potato to eat. I survived the Nazis. I survived farmers who wanted to kill me. I survived,” he says. Despite his early trauma, the loss of all 63 members of his immediate and extended families and the shock of finding himself alone in an inhospitable environment, Maxwell is an optimist. He greets the rain with a glad heart and his paintings burst with that appreciation of being alive. That is why, when a viewer enters his gallery, they can physically feel the fulfillment of his long-time dream to make art his life. The vitality of Maxwell’s canvases make us all feel more alive.
– written by Heather Solomon-Bowden, B.F.A.